Thursday, September 01, 2011

Christopher Benninger

‘We Need A Model Where Nothing Ever Becomes Obsolete’

City Architect Christopher Benninger Talks About Finding The Self, Buildings, The Future Of Indian Urban Planning, And His New Book

City-based architect Christopher Benninger, who is currently commissioned to design the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, and who has designed the Mahindra United World College of India in Mulshi, among other award-winning projects, needs no introduction. Only that, the American master, who left a faculty position in the Harvard University to make India, specially Pune, his home a long time ago, now adds another feather to his cap, that of being an author. The book, aptly titled, ‘Letters To A Young Architect’, will be released on August 29 at the Balgandharva Rangmandir at 5 pm.

Spanning more than 300 pages and divided into six chapters, containing 31 ‘letters’, the book is more than just a series of ‘what-to-do’ to young architects. Explains Benninger: “The book is a narrative about my personal journey and my discovery of truths through transcendental moments of creativity and discovery. Architecture is merely the medium of that journey. The book is not about buildings; it’s about the passions of people who have motivated me.”

That’s one of the reasons, Benninger believes the book will appeal to readers who are not necessarily architects, “because it’s about the conundrum of living, and values and ideas that create boundaries in one’s definition of “self,” and in one’s identity.” At the same time, Benninger says the book is directed at young architects who are embarking upon a voyage; who will leave their families, known territories and traditions. “It’s my personal story, but it will help young architects, and youngsters in general, to understand how important it is to shape one’s own story and to create one’s own life.” Benninger emphasises that the book is about designing one’s self more than about creating great buildings.

Benninger, who has already distinguished himself as a role model for aspiring architects, writes in the book: “The greatest gift we can give a student is that knowledge that they will always be students,” while reiterating the fact that he still considers himself a student. “Architecture is a continuously transforming art, impacted upon by changes in technology and social nuances. Every time I interact with professionals, both young and old, I learn something new about our social and technological context. That is why my buildings have changed so much depending on their location, the client’s needs and the period in which I have created them,” he explains.

Then, does the book explain the architect’s ideas of an ideal architect? Not really, says Benninger: “In putting pen to paper I did not set out to describe what an ideal architect is, but when putting my pen down I understood that I have rather strong feelings about that ideal. I feel the values that I lay out in the prologue of the book are “non-negotiable,” and that anyone who truly tries to live by those is part of my gharana and I would like to call them a friend. These values include a search for ‘truth’ and ‘objective reality’; a belief in the equality of all living things.”

Though the book contains a series of letter addressed to a special audience, the book is more about finding one’s self, and hence more autobiographical than technical. Says Benninger: “Each building I design is a kind of autobiography of an idea, and it draws from the truths I have gathered. Some of these truths are very simple like employing human scale, harmony, proportion and expressing materials honestly. Integrating with nature and being sustainable are other truths.”

Benninger left the promise of an enviable future in the US to settle down in India in the 1970s. Did he being an American in India change anything in his journey to be the best in business? “Being an American is not what molded me, but my youthful experiences in America did shape me,” says Benninger, “I studied at Harvard and MIT under truly great thinkers, and they told me that they would “tolerate excellence, but that they expected perfection” from me. This was true of my guru in architecture Jose Luis Sert, or my professor of economics John Kenneth Gailbraith. Moreover, they made it clear that one’s journey is ‘one chance’ at the game of life, and you must aim high to make the best of it.

Being in India also offers him the opportunity to see things in perspective. “It’s very important that we stop learning about urban planning and architecture from the West. They have been on a self-destructive trajectory for well over a century, while we had all the right ideas fifty years ago. Their model is based on the disastrous proposition that there will be continuous, geometric, unending growth, when of course that is ridiculous. Each building is an investment and not a home or a place for “right livelihood!” Their “throw away“ culture and production system spells doom!”

So, what’s the alternative? “We need a model where nothing ever becomes obsolete, and where each object we produce can morph, and reinvent itself, using the same resources to transform into a new idea or concept. This is where a ‘new technology’ will emerge. But this new technology will be based on Gandhian ideas and thoughts. For India that is where the fun lies. India can become the technological center of the universe, if it stops copying the West and starts to reinvent the world,” says Beninnger.

(I did this interview for a print publication which did not happened. You know, management policies... Sorry, Christopher...)

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